Coaching Wednesdays: Improving psychological flexibility through coaching

If you are a coach working in the UK’s NHS, or an NHS manager or clinician who coaches, you will no doubt be familiar with the term Compassionate Leadership.

To explore how we might coach with compassion I have been researching the work of Frank Bond and  Steven Hayes and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).  Compassion, according to Steven Hayes, co-founder of  ACT, is a value which emerges from psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility is presented in the literature as a model of six interacting processes.  The six elements are worth considering within a workplace coaching context as the practical application of this model has been shown to make a positive contribution to reducing stress, as well as supporting compassionate leadership.  And stress management is a topic which arises in many coaching sessions with leaders and everyone else.

So let’s take a look at the 6 core processes in the ACT model

   1.   Acceptance

This refers to the acceptance of past events and experiences.  Acceptance is also about experiencing the feelings that are arising rather than avoiding them.  In a coaching context we encourage coachee’s to accept their past as part of the future-orientation of our work.  There may be valuable learning to be gained from past experiences for coachees but we want our sessions to deal with the present and support future action.

    2.  Cognitive Defusion

This is a new term to me so I have been interested to learn more.  Essentially the client is encouraged to question the believability of a negative thought.  So rather than asking your coachee to practice positive thinking, this approach seeks to diminish the unhelpful functions of thoughts.  In other words lessening attachment to particular thoughts or recognising that the thought might not be true. A simple but very powerful coaching question we often use is: How do you know that is true? or Is that true? These questions, asked gently, often stop a coachee in their tracks as they start to challenge a long standing assumption and open the door to gaining a different perspective.

   3.  Being Present

Being fully present at work is something we all need to continually strive for – being present is energising, and it allows us to notice and manage our internal and external environment.  This means we can get in front of any habitual and unhelpful behaviours and be aware of any bias that may be tripping us up.  A useful coaching exercise is to ask your coachee to be fully present in their next work meeting,  and to notice where the  power is in the room, and how people get their voice into the meeting, and then to report back on their observations at the next coaching session. This simple exercise always delivers some insightful information for both coach and coachee to discuss and work through.

   4.  Self-as-Context

One way to think about self-as-context is you-as-observer of your life.  Being the observer means you have awareness but are not attached to the narrative of your life story.  One way to explore self-as-context is to practice mindfulness.  And the practice of mindfulness is linked to compassion and relief from anxiety and stress. In a coaching session you can use metaphor to help your coachee move into the observer role.  Ask your coachee to find a metaphor to describe their situation, problem etc.  For example the problem might be a slime pool or an ogre or a brick wall.  Work with your coachee to clean the pool, banish the ogre and scale the wall.

   5.  Values

Many coaches will invite their coachee to complete a values exercise as part of the pre-contract discussions.  A discussion about values and how they play out in the work environment is an important coaching discussion and one that we recommend you include in an early session.

   6.  Committed Action

I can hear you cheering this sixth and final element!  Committed action aligned to values is at the heart of coaching, and leads to the achievement of outcomes and goals.


Coaching is a distinct discipline.  We must always ensure that our coachees are ready for coaching and refer them to other support such as counselling when appropriate.  We are not therapists but therapy models such as ACT can provide a different approach that used thoughtfully can achieve excellent outcomes for our coaching clients.

If you are interested in learning more about coaching with compassion, get in touch to find out about our forthcoming online and face to face training courses, including ILM Level 5 Coaching & Mentoring



Bond, F.W. ; Hayes, S.C. (2008)
Handbook of Brief Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, pp.117-139
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